Castle Garden

A world like no other, situated in a magical corner of the city, where the city’s people came together to have a good time in public.
—New York Times, 1899

Watercolor of Castle Garden surrounded by the bay with boats in the water, a sunrise behind it.
Castle Garden, Jasper Francis Cropsey, 1859.

Castle Garden, also known as Castle Clinton National Monument, has had a varied past. Since its inception in 1808, the sandstone fortress in Manhattan’s Battery Park has been a military fortification, pleasure garden, and America’s first immigration center.

What was there before Castle Garden? Well, nothing in that exact spot. A little to the east along the Battery was the spot for Fort Amsterdam, which changed names to Fort George when the British took over. The fort was demolished after the American Revolution.

Fortress

The sandstone walls of the castle fort
Castle Clinton in Battery Park, New York City

With tensions rising between England and America, New York needed to secure the port of Manhattan. Between 1808 and 1811, Castle Clinton, named for Mayor DeWitt Clinton, was under construction. Built on a man-made island off the tip of Manhattan, this seaside fortification was armed with 28 cannons, which shot 32 pound cannonballs a distance of 1.5 miles.

During the War of 1812, in which America and England fought over maritime rights, Manhattanites were lucky that the British never attacked New York. It wouldn’t have withstood the newly developed weaponry capable of blasting through sandstone. With that realization, the military decided Castle Clinton was better off as the headquarters for all New York City fortifications.

America’s Amusement Park

Lithograph of Castle Garden with trees and people in the forefront.
Castle Garden, New York. From the Battery.

Once the fear of war was over the government decommissioned the fort and leased it to New York City. It opened for entertainment in 1824 and remained open almost every day until the day it closed.

At the entrance, gaslights spelled out the name, Castle Garden. It offered a promenade on the roof of the fort, refreshments and restaurants, an exhibition hall, theater, and saltwater baths for the “invigorating experience of…pure, renovating ocean-brine.”  [SMITHSONIAN]

“The illuminations, bands of music, and multitudes of people, give it the appearance of an enchanted castle. The sea breeze, with delicious coolness, breathes its freshness from the bay. Refreshments of every kind are to be obtained at moderate cost; nor must a favourite American beverage called mint julep, a sort of punch, pass unnoticed in the catalogue of the delicacies, with which the place abounds.” [DeRoos]

However, there were two stipulations the Common Council, at the urging of citizens, laid out. For the pleasure garden to remain, there had to be no dancing without the mayor’s permission, and no gambling.

General Lafayette’s Grand Tour

1824, President James Monroe invited General Lafayette, the last surviving general of the American Revolution, back for a grand tour. It was the nation’s 50th anniversary. Lafayette’s stop at Castle Gardens drew what seemed like half the city. They not only came to see Lafayette, but to enjoy the balloons, fireworks, and musicians.

A military parade for General Lafayette. Men on horseback, tall ship masts rising behind them
The military escort for the arrival of the Marquis de Lafayette forms at Castle Garden.

Exhibitions

Over 40,000 people came to Castle Garden to view demonstrations of the latest technologies. Samuel Colt showed off his Submarine Battery, which was an underwater electrical detonator at the end of a waterproof cable (tar-coated copper wires). He blew the 260-ton brig Volta to splinters and slivers. Colt wanted the military to acquire his naval mine. However…

John Quincy Adams, who was serving as a US Representative from Massachusetts’s 8th congressional district scuttled the project as “not fair and honest warfare” and termed the Colt mine an “unchristian contraption” [Schiffer]

A segment of underwater telegraph cable splayed open to see the strands inside, mounted on a trophy block. A plaque says: First Submarine Telegraph Cable
Samuel Colt’s Underwater Telegraph Cable

Samuel Morse, of the Morse code, demonstrated his new submarine telegraph. Like the over-land Morse code, the submarine telegraph was meant to connect continents for instant communication.

Sinking a cable like Colt’s across the bottom of the bay, they connected Castle Garden to Governor’s Island, about ¾ of a mile apart. Vast crowds came to witness this technological advancement. Unfortunately, the demonstration failed. It’s possible some fishermen came across it, and thinking it was seaweed blocking the fishing lanes, cut the cable.

Jenny Lind with her hair decorated with flowers, she's wearing an off-the-shoulder gown.
Jenny Lind, Eduard Magnus, 1862.

The crowd was merciless in their displeasure.

P. T. Barnum presented Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale.” Over 5000 guests attended her debut, launching her opera career in America.

New York City Aquarium

Skipping ahead, after the Emigrant Landing Depot closed, Castle Garden opened in 1896 as the first aquarium in America. At the time, only England and Germany had aquariums. Castle Garden displayed large pools on the first and second floors, housing over 150 species, including sharks, tortoises, alligators, and local trout. The biggest draws were the beluga whale and the sea lion feeding shows.

Fun fact: in 1938, Warner Brothers filmed the Penguin Pool Murders inside the aquarium.

Interior view of the Castle Garden Aquarium. Two floors are seen. On the first floor are large tanks with sea animals within. Many people are present.
Aquarium at Castle Garden

Immigration

As immigration picked up in the 19th century, the city needed a centralized processing location to record newcomers. The city closed Castle Garden for entertainment in 1854 and became America’s first immigration center, called the Emigrant Landing Depot.

A mother nurses her baby, sitting on a trunk, surrounded by other immigrants and their possessions.
In the Land of Promise, Castle Garden. Charles Frederic Ulrich, 1884.

Each immigrant was given a health examination, registered and given water for bathing before being released into the city with information about his or her final destination. [Smithsonian]

Two thirds of all immigrants who arrived in America between 1855 and 1890 came through Castle Garden, totaling over 8 million people.

Ellis Island opened in 1890.

Make Way

New York City needed another connecting point between the tip of Manhattan and Brooklyn. The City Commissioner, Robert Moses, wanted a suspension bridge. The bridge would have gone right through where Castle Garden sat. So sure was he that his proposal would go through, he order Castle Garden to be destroyed.

Unlike those who enjoyed the hugely popular aquarium, the Commissioner saw no value in holding onto it, not even for historical preservation purposes.

The animals were transferred to the Bronx Zoo where they remained until Coney Island’s aquarium opened in 1957. The city didn’t destroy the whole fort. They left the circular walls. The bridge, however, never transpired. Today, Red Hook, Brooklyn connects to Battery Park in Manhattan via the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel.

As for Castle Garden, those two hundred year old circular sandstone walls stood dormant until the 1970s. After restoring it, the National Park Service opened Castle Clinton National Monument in 1975. Ever since, it has offered self-guided tours and is a departure point for visiting Ellis Island.

Front of Castle Clinton National Monument. People gather in front of the walls reading signs.
Castle Clinton National Monument, 2015

Sources

1. Blakemore, Erin. “America’s First Immigration Center Was Also an Amusement Park.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, January 26, 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/americas-first-immigration-center-was-also-amusement-park-180961727/.

2. “Castle Clinton National Monument (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, April 2, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/cacl/index.htm.

3. “Castle Clinton.” South Street Seaport Museum, October 15, 2020. https://southstreetseaportmuseum.org/castle-clinton/.

4. “CASTLE GARDEN: America’s First Immigration Center.” Castle Garden. Accessed July 16, 2021. http://www.castlegarden.org/.

5. “History & Culture.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, April 26, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/cacl/learn/historyculture/index.htm.

6. Park Archives: Castle Clinton National Monument, May 1, 2021. http://npshistory.com/publications/cacl/index.htm.

Images

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